Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best, Worst and 'Meh' of 2012- Part 1: The Honorable Mentions/Nice Try, But No Cigar

The Best, Worst and 'Meh' of 2012 

Part 1: The Honorable Mentions (that were candidates for my 10 favorite albums of 2012)


Nice try, But No Cigar (in other words, the 'Meh' albums that were well-meaning in their own right, but could have been better in some aspects)

Honorable mention albums (in no particular order):

How to Destroy Angels- An Omen
I’ve come to realize that maybe Trent Reznor these days is a more shrewd businessman that I previously thought: two EPs of a relatively consistent nature, both of which build up anticipation towards the release of their proper album dropping in spring 2013. For now, this EP confidently sells the justification of this side project.

El-P- Cancer 4 Cure
This album and R.A.P. Music almost sound like companion pieces to a greater whole that El-P wanted to accomplish in 2012. May he never take it easy on himself for our benefit.

Chromatics- Kill for Love
Interesting concept, even when in sleeper mode. This band may owe a huge sonic debt to the Cure (like Beach House), but since Robert Smith didn’t release an album this year (breaking their recent string of albums released 4 years apart), the Chromatics had to fill in for them, and made it nearly 80 minutes of hypnotic fun. A sweeter Disintegration, if you will.

Beach House- Bloom
A spacious record that tends to be positive about feeling down. One of the best indie rock/dream pop albums 2012 had to offer.

Flying Lotus- Until the Quiet Comes
Electronica music for the ghosts of Miles Davis and John Coltrane to chill to. Fires brief rounds of brilliant songs in your ears, and has Radiohead’s seal of approval.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse- Psychedelic Pill
The world thought it would be ending this year, but Neil was jamming like it was 1969 again, and did a splendid job of recreating the psychedelic spirit from that special era. The album cover makes the older fans feel at home again.

Neurosis- Honor Found in Decay
Steve Albini uses his disgruntled powers of raw studio magic to give Neurosis the vital sound that they need at this point in their career.

Sleigh Bells- Reign of Terror
Most times, listening to this album feels like sticking a fork into a wall socket, but without the threat of dying a painful death holding you back from feeling great. “Crush” “End of the Line”

Bob Dylan- Tempest
Dylan manages to make his 35th album valuable currency in his catalogue, even when he is a blatantly aging music legend. If this ends up being his last album anyway, he would have gone out strong. “Tin Angel”

Japandroids- Celebration Rock
I like modest indie records that roar with purpose. Plus, the fact that they know the importance of pacing 8 tracks over 35 minutes deserves recognition too.

Grimes- Visions
Gives hope to people like me who believe in the power of Garageband software to make a great collective work.

Andy Stott- Luxury Problems
My liking for this album has something to do with my desire to fall asleep peacefully. This album definitely does the trick for me on the nights I play it to wind down.

Rush- Clockwork Angels
Note how the position of the hands on the clock reference 2112. Cool, ain’t it? There’s no way of telling how this will stand out from their staggering 40-year discography, but as of now it feels right for the time.

Converge- All We Love We Leave Behind
An album that beats your ears and brain mercilessly for just over half an hour, but you end up thanking them for it.

Big Boi- Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
As much as Big Boi would like to stray into his own funk territory, there’s just no denying his roots as a member of OutKast. Not quite on par with Sir Lucious Left Foot, but is still an admirable effort nonetheless. “Mama Told Me”

Nice Try, But No Cigar (the 'Meh' albums I wish were better; again, in no particular order)

Smashing Pumpkins- Oceania
The band may be fully formed again, but it’s still under the same management. Doesn’t help that Billy felt the need to stretch out emasculated psychedelic sounds over an hour. “Pale Horse” (as corny as it sounds sometimes) “Pinwheels”

Animal Collective- Centipede Hz
Following Merriweather Post Pavilion was an already daunting task, but it didn’t help Animal Collective to sound nervously erratic and spastic for their follow-up. Also doesn’t help that “Today’s Supernatural” of all tracks was chosen as the lead single. “Father Time” and “Wide-Eyed” are some of the best songs on the album, but are mildly ruined by both irritating and ineffective singing respectively.

Death Grips- The Money Store
Anything of an experimental nature is a trial and error process, and as much hope as I have for any group who is willing to experiment (especially with rap & hip-hop), this has more errors than highlights.

Rick Ross- God Forgives, I Don’t
Proof that Rick Ross may have only gotten lucky with Teflon Don, and is probably a better supporting rapper than an actual star; kind of like the Nicolas Cage of rap. “Three Kings” is supposed to be a highlight of the album (featuring Dr. Dre and Jay-Z) that instead turns out to be a boast of undermining proportions. Still, Ross means well, and has sounds like he's having fun doing it.

Grizzly Bear- Shields
Beyond “Sleeping Ute,” I just don’t feel one way or another about this album. Which is unfortunate considering the great reviews it has received. Maybe this one will make sense to me in a few years.

Dirty Projectors- Swing Lo Magellan
I really don’t remember much from this one other than a bunch of hand-clapping, and supposedly this is their most accessible album. Still, it’s an indie rock album that wants so desperately to be a light-hearted industrial album, and I guess that counts for something. “Dance for You” “Maybe That Was It”

Kanye West presents G.O.O.D. Music- Cruel Summer
You turn Kanye’s buddies loose in a studio and this is what you get: an overly eager mixtape that has flashes of brilliance, but overall is no flash in the pan. "Mercy" "Cold"

Jack White- Blunderbuss
The Raconteurs and Dead Weather apparently aren’t enough for Jack White as he has felt the need to strike out on his own and release an indistinguishable album under his own name. Other than “Weep Themselves to Sleep,” I’m immune to its supposed blues-rock/garage-rock charm.

Soundgarden- King Animal
It’s hard to tell if Soundgarden have used age to their advantage on Animal given its mixed consistency, but instead of recapturing the spirit of Superunknown (which is probably not something to be attempted in the first place), the band inadvertently recaptures the spirit of Down on the Upside, only vaguer.  

Van Halen- A Different Kind of Truth
The band sounds as vital as ever, but doesn’t exactly warrant 50 minutes. Gives aged metalheads something to bang to, but not too hard.

Albums I would have liked to get to:

Joe Bonamassa- Driving Towards the Daylight
Van Morrison- Born to Sing: No Plan B
Mumford & Sons- Babel
Leonard Cohen- Old Ideas
Fun.- Some Nights
Corrosion of Conformity- Corrosion of Conformity
Bruce Springsteen- Wrecking Ball
The Shins- Port of Morrow
Killing Joke- MMXII
Spiritualized- Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Albums I’m Glad I Skipped:

Lana Del Rey- Born to Die/Paradise
Wiz Khalifa- O.N.I.F.C.
Chris Brown- Fortune
Rihanna- Unapologetic
Killers- Battle Born
Cannibal Corpse- Torture
One Direction- Take Me Home
Ringo Starr- 2012
Madonna- MDNA
Nicki Minaj- Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

Stay tuned for my lists of the best and worst 2012 had to offer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Throbbing Gristle- Second Annual Report (1977): 77%

Halloween is coming. My favorite holiday. And as much as your humble author would like to spend the upcoming weeks glued to the chair, watching old B-Z grade cult horror films like I do every year, I have essays to write, academic articles on political advertising to read, and tackle the every day demands of 4 college classes. Most of which requires a lot of writing. So I guess this review will act as good practice for me. Problem is, I really don’t know if I stopped writing about albums because I was bored with it, or if I really could not think of anything to say about any album I was listening to. Or if I was truly preoccupied with learning how to become an excruciatingly boring academic researcher. So I think I’ll ease myself back into it and discuss a recent favorite of mine I haven’t really listened to in a while. You know, good ol’ fashioned nightmare music. Just in time for the Halloween season.

Right now I’m listening to “Slug Bait- Live At Brighton,” which is the fourth track. Its sound is haunting my brain, and now in “Maggot Death- Live at Rat Club” it’s using the same nightmarish noises to warp the grey matter beyond recognition. This is not an album to take lightly; in the former track, an audio sample of a child muderer’s confession to police is especially unsettling. Then again, I could make the same argument for every track on this album. The whole damn thing is damaging to any psyche, and prolonged exposure to it means you like it, therefore you’re either morose people like me or its creators:

Peter Christopherson (programming, tape manipulations) first, mostly because I read moments before writing that he did the photography to Pink Floyd’s album cover for Animals. Beside that, working with other people (mostly through music videos) like Trent Reznor (the infamous Broken movie), Sepultura, Danzig, Rage Against the Machine, Ministry, and even commercials for McDonald’s. Sounds eclectic considering this is one of four members who put together tracks like “Slug Bait- ICA,” which details the murder of a seven-months pregnant woman and her husband (I would discuss lyrics here, but if you really want to know, I would rather you look them up for yourself).

Genesis P-Orridge, (Neil Megson; morbid utterings, bass feedback distortion) whose grandmother was an occultist and is himself one.

Cosey Fanni Tutti (guitar mutilations), a former stripper and pornography star who is married to fellow TG member:

Chris Carter (electronics, screeches, and other zapping noises). So, as you can see, we have uniquely creepy and effective credibility among these merry band of four.

Now keep in mind: these are just ordinary people who made this record. Listen to it; I truly dare you to, and it is an album that is meant to be dare-worthy. And don’t let the 20 minute running time to “After Cease to Exit” discourage you. Think of it as a total immersion into their world for a while. The first half of the album goes pretty quickly, which gives you a solid foundation for a good first impression, but it is that 20 minute odyssey that acts as the real purpose as to why the album was made. It’s also the title of the song that really says it all about the avant-garde composition to the song. What you hear could really be the sounds of the afterlife created by those who quite possibly have experienced it.  

Because when you consider the plain cover and the fact that it is one of the pioneers of Industrial music, a term TG themselves coined, you begin to appreciate just how inventive this album really is. Sure, the average white-bread conservative will be repulsed by its content, but anybody with a modicum of appreciation for darker material will understand it. Being one of the first Industrial records, it strives to establish just what that is: somewhere between experimental, hardcore punk, and electronic music, as well as incorporating the band’s supremely demented quirks and tastes for sounds never committed to tape before.

Naturally whenever a band is the first to set a following for a respectable genre, the first album is bound to carry some praise with it. Which holds true to my opinion of the album. But no matter where its placement is in the Throbbing Gristle catalogue, the album still sounds like just that: a blueprint. The substance is there, and so is the expression of ideas and possibilities, but the quality of the sound aches to be mixed a bit better so these sounds can be enjoyed properly. However, if one were to go all the way and buy the vinyl, or even the CD, be prepared to grind an axe for when you have to cut your arm to get one (most CD copies go for $25 and up, vinyl about twice that).

Is it worth that much of a price tag? Since I deeply admire Throbbing Gristle, I want to say yes, but this music is truly only for those who understand the intents and purposes of experimental music mixed with disturbing overtones. I have dropping blatant hints that this would make a great birthday or Christmas gift to my parents who seem reluctant to get this for me. I don’t blame them; besides being expensive as hell, it truly is one of a kind in terms of provoking art.

Music: 8
Length: 8
Lyrics: 7
Significance: 8
Meaning: 7
Overall Impression: 8

Thursday, August 23, 2012

To Relapse or Recover?

I had been putting off writing this particular review mostly because at the time I needed to focus my attention on developing my working knowledge of the Spanish language in a summer class. But more than anything, I did actually make several attempts to write this review, but none of the finished products were to my liking. So, I decided that rather than editing down bad reviews, I’d start fresh again, much like what Eminem did with Relapse/Recovery. What I find interesting about these two albums is that when I think back to how much I liked them when they first came out and what I think of them now, it gets me to question my own method of critiquing. What I mean is how fresh and inspiring these albums sounded when they first came out, but today when I listen to them, those feelings are long gone and now I’m left with just…songs. Not that they’re outright mediocre, it’s just that their longevity has nothing on Em’s early millennia albums.

Obviously, I’m not going to count The Re-Up as an official Eminem release because it’s more of a haphazard compilation of Em and his friends goofing off in the studio while he was stoned cold on pharmaceuticals. I doubt he even remembers assembling it, much less drawing the cover art. Some pertinent backstory: after Encore, Em decided to retire the Slim Shady persona, and released Curtain Call: The Hits shortly afterward as a retrospective swan song of sorts. During this time, he was addicted to every pill from Ambien (which he was introduced to on the set of 8 Mile), Valium, and everyone’s favorite abused pharmaceutical, Vicodin. For the five years Eminem fell of the face of the earth, he struggled with waning success, alarming weight gain, an increasingly stronger taste for drugs, and the harshest blow of all: losing his best friend, Proof, in a nightclub fight where he was fatally shot in 2006. Likewise with any addict, Em’s depression sent him spiraling into overdose after overdose until finally he got sober in 2008, and hit the studios with longtime friend/mentor/producer-in-crime, Dr. Dre. The outpour of material Em had come up with warranted a double album. However, it wasn’t released that way. When it came time to assemble the tracks for what was “Relapse 2,” he realized it could be better, so he holed up in the studio again, but with varying producers in an attempt to prove he could be even more marketable and accessible than he ever was. And to add that final twist, Em announced on his Twitter page that, “There is no Relapse 2.” This cryptic message ultimately meant that the album title would be Recovery, to fit better with the overall theme of the songs. All in all, these two albums mark the beginning of a new era for Eminem, as he tries to prove to the world that he has retained his remarkable talent for rapping, and gained new skills in the process. This review is meant to discuss Eminem’s relevance in a new decade where the game’s players have changed dramatically, as well as rap itself, and also to question whether his newfound sobriety makes him less of the rapper he once was.

Structurally, Relapse is far more consistent in its production, sound and themes. The best way to think of these two albums is to compare them to The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP (2000). Relapse is essentially the album that marks the return of Slim Shady, while Recovery is the return of Eminem, just like how Slim Shady introduced us all to the mischievous character, while Marshall Mathers gave us an introspective view into Eminem’s true thoughts. The same holds true to Relapse and Recovery.

On the whole, Relapse and Recovery are worlds apart as far as content and even sound is concerned. For one thing, Relapse finds Eminem on comfortable and familiar ground with producer Dr. Dre handling most all of the production work. On “Beautiful,” Eminem takes center stage again like he did in his days of The Eminem Show, and “Déjà vu,” clues us in on what happened the night he overdosed. And like The Eminem Show, he confesses past struggles and emotions towards aspects of himself that he despised and would rather forget. Clichés aside, it is an emotionally heavy track in an island by itself with far less serious and more gruesome comical tunes.

I’ve found that fans and critics alike have criticized Em for adopting an indiscernible accent on Relapse, but what they have to understand is that is not necessarily Eminem rapping on Relapse. Isn’t that what drew us to the charisma of Slim Shady in the first place? This idea of an uber depraved alter ego whose arch-solipsism was terrifying with black comedy overtones that were actually funny? On Relapse, Slim Shady is funny in a very different fashion. For instance, in songs like “Brain Damage,” we have relatable revenge fantasies acting as the vehicle for his appeal, but on tracks like “3 a.m.,” and “Insane,” we have murder and rape fantasies that aren’t relatable at all, nor are they terribly funny, but at least Em is mustering every effort he has to make the rhythms of his words co-exist nicely with the beat. My personal favorite track that displays this trait would be “Stay Wide Awake,” where Slim Shady raps with a sardonic smile, “I see my target put my car in park and approach a tender/ young girl by the name of Brenda and I pretend to befriend her/ sit down beside her like a spider hi there girl you might’a/ heard of me before see whore you’re the kinda girl that I’d a/ ssault and rape and figure why not try to make your pussy wider/ fuck you with an umbrella then open it up while the shit’s inside ya.” Sure, rape isn’t the funniest topic, but given its immense emotional gravity, it would only make sense for someone like Eminem/Slim Shady to try to put a comical spin on it. To put it in perspective, compared to the recent remarks of Rep. Todd Akin regarding legitimate rape, Slim Shady’s views seem more sensible.  

What can really bog this album down is the length. At just over 76 minutes, you begin to realize that this sounds suspiciously close to an Insane Clown Posse album. I consider that hilarious when the Marshall Mathers title track rips them mercilessly. It is one of Em’s longest albums, but somehow feels longer because of him wanting to cram in every spit and insult he recorded. So obviously it’s not on the same level as Marshall Mathers, Eminem Show and definitely not Slim Shady, but at least it doesn’t have the same amount of blatant and subpar filler tracks of Encore

But never fear, if you don’t care for endless murder fantasies with standard and frankly, lazy, Dr. Dre production, by golly, Recovery is for you. I found that critics were pretty evenly divided with this album, and really, their opposing claims were both right. If I had to sum up the scope of all of their valid arguments, I’d say the following: it was okay. To be more specific, I just had to laugh over how enthusiastic and consistent they were about Eminem’s new sound, but off to the side, and sheepishly, they also said: maybe his rapping is a little past his time. Ouch.

Unfortunately this holds true, but optimistically speaking, it is by no means an outright terrible Eminem album. Even though Eminem is practically using puns and asides as crutches, he eventually wins his own race to convince himself he’s back on his prime. Seriously, I have never heard him spit so much in what seems like a unnecessarily harried pace. I suspect he knows amazing breathing techniques so he can pull this off at live shows. In “Talking 2 Myself,” he acknowledges that he feels guilt for becoming a suicidally depressed pharmaceutical addict who did next to nothing for the past five years. And in the tracks to come, we are bludgeoned with that aspect of making up for lost time.

 The first quarter of the album kicks off well enough, but starts its path to monotony with, “W.T.P.,” where he actually does a pretty accurate mimic of Insane Clown Posse. Going back to “Talking 2 Myself,” we are presented with a good idea of some of the lows he experienced, but is magnified with “Going Through Changes,” which if it didn’t have that sappily utilized Black Sabbath sample as the main beat, would actually have a wrenching impact. Then what dignity that song had vanishes with lead single, “Not Afraid,” possibly one of the worst rap songs I’ve heard. Horrible beat courtesy of Boi1da, and has the gall to diss Relapse, which ironically has more fun and sincere pride to it. Every claim he’s not only back, but even better than ever starts to become your typical alpha-dog rapper boast. I almost have to laugh in the following tracks like “Seduction,” where he rapid-fire spits one syllable raps and complicated rhyme schemes that are more dizzying than awe-inspiring. “No Love” employs Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” as the basis for the entire song, and having Lil Wayne as a guest in this song makes you realize just how similar his and Em’s rapping styles are. Which leads me to ask, is Eminem content with using corny humor for the rest of his career, just like every other rapper out there?

It gets worse: the music to songs like “Space Bound” (god, that awful fucking chorus…), “25 to Life” (god, that awful fucking intro and chorus………………..the whole fucking thing’s just terrible), and “Love the Way You Lie,” (which rehashes the content of “25 to Life” with the sappiest beat in history) sound like they belong on a Drake album. No, scratch that. I wouldn’t wish these tunes on any rapper, much less Drake. What scared the shit out of me is when DJ Khalil, the producer for “Lie” did “I Need a Doctor” for Dr. Dre, and seemed like it might be on the legendary still-unreleased Detox. Listen to the two back to back and see how DJ Khalil plagiarizes himself with the same hokey emo music. But all three of these songs on Recovery see Eminem get in touch with his romantic side, even if he’s threatening to kill his mate if she plans to leave him. This probably has something to do with how he remarried Kim in 2006, and lasted for about a year before they realized they could never truly be together. Oh, and “Cinderella Man,” has no discernable purpose so you can definitely skip it. Even the only Dre track on here, “So Bad,” just adds to sinking feelings about inconsistency.

It all comes together with “You’re Never Over,” where Em summons his rap powers to provide a summary of what the album was about, that is if you forgot the first million times. For all the inspiration we could find in this song, Em is STILL using corny metaphors to drive his rapping, “Excuse the corny metaphor/ But they'll never catch up to all this energy that I've mustered.” To its credit, the music isn’t that bad, and you have to admire saving Proof’s tribute for the climactic track. Its this song that brings you up from the miles of muck and reminds you that Recovery is a good album, but only if he had a diligent and stern editor. The idea behind “You’re Never Over,” confirms that Em is going keep at his rap game until he dies for real. So regardless of whether he’s still going to keep going on this mediocre path to recovery (even the album cover screams generic), we’ll just have to grit our teeth and bear with it. Hopefully, he’ll realize that his rapping works best with storytelling. But I’m not betting on it.  

Who wins?

Relapse definitely. Recovery was only interesting during the summer it was released, but hopefully Eminem will release another album some time within a year so that maybe he can redeem himself yet again and prove he can be diverse and engagingly cinematic. My advice to Em would to be glad that he got the chance to work with other producers for a change, but recruit the Bass Brothers and his D12 cronies for a more consistent and endearingly dirty rap album. Heh, maybe next time around he’ll even diss Recovery for being sappy, calculated and stunningly corny. Nah, I wouldn’t bet on that either.

Relapse: (71%)
Music: 7
Meaning: 6
Lyrics: 8
Length: 6
Significance: 8
Overall Impression: 7

Recovery: (54%)
Music: 5
Meaning: 5
Lyrics: 5
Length: 5
Significance: 6
Overall Impression: 6

Remaining Eminem albums ranked:

1. The Marshall Mathers LP (89%)
Music: 9
Lyrics: 9
Length: 8
Meaning: 8
Significance: 10
Overall Impression: 9

2. The Slim Shady LP (85%)
Music: 8
Lyrics: 9
Meaning: 8
Length: 8
Significance: 9
Overall Impression: 9

3. The Eminem Show (83%)
Music: 8
Lyrics: 9
Meaning: 9
Length: 7
Significance: 9
Overall Impression: 8

4. Relapse (71%)

5. Encore (63%)
Music: 7
Lyrics: 6
Meaning: 6
Length: 6
Significance: 6
Overall Impression: 6

6. Infinite/The Slim Shady EP (59%)
Music: 7
Lyrics: 6
Meaning: 5
Length: 6
Significance: 5
Overall Impression: 6

7. Recovery (54%)